So you’ve learned the basic moves of chess and have played a bunch of games, and you’ve decided that you want to get better at this beautiful game. Where do you start?
Over the last few years, I’ve taught and observed new and beginning players as they develop in chess. More recently, I’ve had the joy of watching and teaching my children as they start to take up the Royal Game. Of course, with this comes many learning opportunities as I see my children and students make many mistakes along the way.
I will be discussing several specific chess tips you can use to improve quickly. If you are a beginner or casual player and want to take your chess improvement more seriously, follow these chess tips!
Learn How to Count
Although the ultimate goal is to checkmate our opponent’s king, there are a lot of pieces that can get in the way. This leads to us exchanging pieces to eliminate our opponent’s army and get at his or her king. Sometimes, it’s a mutual trade – a knight for a knight or a queen for a queen. Other times, we get something for nothing or for something of less value. One of the easiest ways to improve as a beginner is to make sure that your trades are even or better more often than your opponents.
This involves two aspects – understanding the value of the pieces and counting out the exchanges.
Although there are no actual “points” awarded for capturing your opponent’s pieces, over time players have developed point values to the pieces which help us compare the relative power of the pieces.
- Pawns = 1
- Knights and Bishops = 3
- Rooks = 5
- Queens = 9
- Kings are priceless as they can’t be traded, but some writers estimate a king’s “fighting” power to be about 4 pawns.
Now armed with this information, the next step is to count out the potential exchanges in order to decide whether or not it is beneficial for you. Let’s look at an example.
In the position below, it is White’s turn and White’s rooks are attacking Black’s pawn on d5. To count in this position, we can add up the pieces that are exchanged. If the rooks are traded off first then the sequence adds up as follows:
- White rook captures pawn on d5 = +1
- Black rook captures rook on d5 = 1 -5 = -4
- White rook captures rook on d5 = 1 -5 +5 = 1
- Black rook captures rook on d5 = 1 -5 +5 -5 = -4
- White knight captures rook on d5 = 1 -5 +5 -5 +5 = 1
- Total value of the trades = +1
In the above position, we can use the short cut of counting how many attackers there are – three – and how many defenders there are – two. When there are more attackers than defenders (and the value of the pieces is equal) then we can win the exchange.
However, consider the position below, which is just a slight variation from the first example. In this case, because of the order of the exchanges, it is no longer safe to take the pawn as the queen will be exchanged by a piece that is less valuable.
So in your games, make sure you take your time whenever you’re going to exchange pieces. Make sure you understand the value of the pieces and count out the value of the exchange before going for it!
Here are a few ways to develop this skill:
- When studying games played by masters, count the value of exchanges and see “who won” each one. Do this when studying your own games as well.
- Regularly practice tactical puzzles. One excellent resource for this is the Chessable e-book 1001 Chess Exercises for Beginners. Except when the problem ends in checkmate, counting is an essential aspect of judging whether a tactic works or not.
Have you ever made a chess move and almost instantly kicked yourself because you saw that you made a big mistake? This could include missing that your opponent was attacking your queen or that the piece you thought was en prise – a piece that seemed free to take – was actually protected by a bishop or rook across the board. If this happens to you often (and it happens to everyone sometimes), you may need to be more careful at the board.
Here is an example of what I’m talking about from one of my son’s games. He had a position that any experienced player would have won easily. However…
Chess is a game between two players. This means that not only must you decide on your move, you must also consider how your opponent might respond to your move. Likewise, your move should somehow take into account the intentions of your opponent.
If you want to get better at chess, you will want to improve your board awareness and develop the habit of being careful when you make your moves. Here are a few important points to remember.
- Try to identify your opponent’s checks, captures, and threats. You intended move should be able to account for these “CCT’s.”
- Every once in a while, try to take a “big picture” look of the whole board. What is your opponent trying to do? What area of the board is he attacking? Are there any targets that you should be attacking?
- After each of your opponent’s moves, try to understand the purpose of the move before you consider your move. It’s a bad habit to make your move instantly after your opponent makes a move.
Taking care when playing chess doesn’t mean just playing conservatively or passively. What it does mean is taking into account your opponent’s plans and threats. The more you can do this in your play, the more you will avoid those “beginner mistakes” that you kick yourself for after you make them.
Activate Your Pieces
One thing that strong players do very well is get all of their pieces working for them. If you look at the games of classic players like Morphy or modern players like Magnus Carlsen, you will notice that nearly all of their pieces are doing something important on the board. The ones that aren’t get traded off.
Here is an example of a recent game I saw between two beginners demonstrating how to NOT use your bishops.
Paul Morphy – one of the greatest players in the late 1800’s and perhaps one of the greatest ever – was a master of piece activity. He made his chess pieces work! Below is his famous “Opera Game.” Notice how every one of his pieces play a role in the victory. Conversely, notice how several of his opponent’s pieces are still sitting on their initial squares in the final position.
If you think of your chess pieces as an army. You want to make sure all of your soldiers are doing their part. Here are some ways to apply this to your games:
- When there aren’t any immediate threats from your opponent, you can take a moment to see if you have any pieces that aren’t active. Make them work!
- See if there is a way to prevent your opponent from activating his pieces. This might include taking control of open files and diagonals before your opponent can or playing a pawn move to deny your opponent a square for his pieces.
- Trade off your opponent’s most active pieces. Try to preserve your own active pieces.
Convert Your Wins
Have you had a game where you had a big advantage and then just couldn’t win it? Maybe you had an extra piece or even an extra queen but eventually the game just fizzled into a draw?
Here is an example from a game between two beginners.
This is not an uncommon occurrence for beginning players. Fortunately, there are a few simple techniques and methods you can learn which will help you turn those winning positions into actual wins!
“Overkill” Checkmate Patterns
These are positions where you have a large advantage over your opponent. Most of these have specific methods to win that don’t require you to calculate. Here are a few you should learn.
- Queen and King versus a long King (see the example above)
- Rook and King versus King
- Two rooks (or queen and rook) versus a king
- Queen and king versus Knight (or Bishop) and king
Once you learn the winning method, you can practice against your friends or against a chess engine. These positions come up often in beginner games, so learning how to play them will help you rack up many points!
Escorting Your Pawns
Besides learning the patterns above, learning basic king and pawn endgames are important as they also occur quite often. Most of them are simple, but they often require precision.
Here’s a position that would have been easily won by White had he known the winning method, but he played quickly and his opponent knew the drawing technique.
General Principles When Winning
Not all of your winning positions will involve the endgame. Sometimes, you’ll be ahead by a piece or exchange in the middle game. Understanding a few general principles should help you turn those winning games into won games.
- Think safety first. Often, winning material involves giving your opponent some other type of compensation, such as room for his or her remaining pieces. Make sure your pieces (especially your king) are safe.
- Coordinate your pieces. In winning a piece through a tactic, sometimes our pieces need to be redeployed to work together again.
- Trade down. It is often beneficial to trade pieces when you are ahead in material. The reason for this is straightforward – the advantage in force is amplified when there is less material on the board.
You will get a lot of practice in this as your opponents will make many mistakes for you to exploit. Here are a few ideas to help you practice converting your won games.
- Learn the basic endgame and mating positions mentioned above. A great resource is the Chessable e-book 100 Endgames You Must Know.
- Find positions in master games where a player resigned. Play the winning side of these positions against a friend or against the computer.
- When you lose a game you should have won, try to find out where you made your mistakes and learn from them.
Study Opening Ideas
There are many strong players and coaches who advise against studying the opening at the beginning stages of one’s chess development. I understand the reasoning of this advice:
- Beginners often blunder, and thus should spend more time studying tactics and learning to exploit their opponent’s blunders and avoid making them.
- There is a danger of spending too much time studying opening variations that will never show up in play, and thus a beginner may be wasting a lot of time.
However, I think that there is a great value in studying the opening phase of the game even for beginners. Here is my rationale:
- Opening systems teach you how to develop your pieces. At the beginning of the game, it can be very confusing where you should develop you pieces. For beginners, a common problem is that the pieces can often step on each other’s toes because the player doesn’t have a plan for each piece. By studying specific openings, you can learn efficient ways to develop your pieces so they all work together.
- Learning specific openings will teach you strategy. Different opening set-ups will lead to different types of strategic plans. For example, openings like the Queen’s Gambit Accepted and the Caro-Kann sometimes lead to isolated queen’s pawn positions, which have many common methods of play. Other openings, like the King’s Indian Defense or the French Defense often lead to locked center positions, where learning the timing and use of pawn levers can be practiced.
- Learning openings helps you conserve your energy for the middlegame and endgame. Setting up a playable position in the early stages of the game will give you a fighting chance later in the game. Without a clear opening plan, you will spend much of your middlegame fixing the problems you created in the opening.
Here is a particularly instructive game from my opening repertoire. I play the Rubinstein Variation as French, which can often lead to endgames with pawns on both wings. In this game, GM Grivas demonstrates how the strategic element of the two bishops can be particularly effective in this structure.
I’ve written before about how to learn openings, and I suggest you check out my previous article. However, here are some tips for maximizing the time you spend learning the opening.
- Understand the general ideas behind each move. Many of the e-books on Chessable written by masters such as IM John Bartholomew and IM Christof Sielecki (aka ChessExplained) explain the general ideas behind the key moves of each variation.
- Study whole master games within your opening variations. You might want to pick a “hero” whose games you can analyze deeply and understand the plans and strategies behind your opening repertoire choices.
- Study the common pawn structures that result from your opening systems. Although some openings have many different structures, some lead to very specific ones that you should understand. Again, well written books such as those mentioned above will help you with this.
You don’t have to spend a lot of your time on openings. However, some focus in your selection of openings and consistent use of Chessable in addition to your other chess studies will strengthen your game immensely.
Don’t Give Up (Bonus Tip)
When masters gain an advantage of a piece or more, it is nearly impossible to come back from. However, in many of your games you won’t have this problem. Even if you find yourself in a losing position, with some energetic play and a tough mental attitude, you can often come back to draw or win the losing game.
Why is this? The main reason is that beginners don’t know how to finish games. Having attained a winning position, they will often squander their advantage.
Here are a few tips to remember when you find yourself in a not-so-great position.
- Try to make sure each of your remaining pieces are doing something useful. This could mean using them to grab an open rank or file, attacking an opponent’s weak pawn, or just making sure that your pieces are safe.
- Try to find out what your opponent needs to do to win, and try to pose as many problems for him as possible.
- Ask yourself if you are up to the challenge. If you are alert and feel like fighting – play on! If you are tired and feel you can’t put up much resistance, it might be a good idea to consider resigning and resting up for your next round. Before your resign though, remember that your beginner opponents are very likely to make a mistake if you can stay in the game.
If you are a beginner, I hope these chess tips have been helpful for you. Chess is a complex and deep game. Of course, that is part of the enjoyment of it. It can be hard to know where to start. If you follow the tips given here and use Chessable and other resources regularly as I’ve described, you will find yourself moving from a beginner to a seasoned player in no time at all!
Bryan Castro is a businessman, writer, and chess enthusiast from Buffalo, NY. Besides chess, he enjoys practicing martial arts, playing piano, and spending time with his wife and children.